2009 Nissan Versa
The Nissan Versa is an excellent choice among subcompacts. It's big and roomy inside with decent head room and legroom and lots of hip room, making it a good choice for larger drivers. Its big, cushy seats are comfortable. Back-seat passengers will find rear-seat leg room as good as that in larger cars and SUVs. The cabin is nicely finished and offers all the modern conveniences.
It offers the small-car virtues of nimble handling, easy parking, and lively yet efficient performance. Versa delivers an EPA-estimated 31 mpg on the highway with the automatic, 33 mpg with the manual transmission.
The Versa is slightly bigger than the lower priced Toyota Yaris and the more expensive Honda Fit. All three are subcompacts designed with tall rooflines for increased interior comfort and visibility. The Versa is the smallest car you'll find in Nissan showrooms: smaller and less expensive than the compact Nissan Sentra, but offering greater interior space and more versatility.
The Versa has received the highest possible ratings in government and insurance industry crash tests, though keep in mind that's among small cars (five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and a “good” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Versa safety features include dual-stage frontal air bags, front-seat side-impact air bags for chest protection, and roof-mounted curtain air bags for head protection.
Versa went on sale as a five-door hatchback in July 2006, with a four-door sedan following in January 2007. Combined, the sedan and hatch sold more 59,000 units in less than one model year. For 2009, Nissan has simplified the model lineup by reducing the total number of body, trim, and transmission combinations from nine to six. The Sport Package is restricted to the hatchback.
Fuel economy for the Nissan Versa depends on the powertrain. Versa SL with CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) is EPA-estimated at 27/33 mpg City/Highway. Versa S gets 26/31 mpg with six-speed manual, 24/32 with four-speed automatic. The base sedan with 1.6-liter engine gets 26/34 mpg with five-speed manual, 26/33 with automatic.
Bottom line, the Nissan Versa is a big small car with comfort, performance and versatility. It's roomy and offers good fuel economy.
Model LineupNissan Versa S manual sedan or hatch ($12,990); S automatic sedan or hatch ($13,990); SL automatic sedan ($15,990); SL CVT hatchback ($16,210)
The Nissan Versa looks bigger than it is. One reason for that is an exceptionally short rear overhang: Very little of the car extends past the rear wheels.
Coming at you, the Versa is clearly related to the retro-future-cool Quest minivan, with a smaller rendition of the same flying-V grille that seems to cantilever off a strong center post, emphasized at either end by classy, triangular headlights. Similarly, a tall, steep windshield aids space efficiency in the van and in the Versa as well.
It's very different at the Versa's near-vertical rear, where the little Nissan almost looks like a hatchback BMW never built. The bottom edges of the tailgate angle sharply inward to clear the cat's-eye taillights. We're guessing it was designed this way to allow those trapezoid taillights to stay on the body rather than being mounted on the tailgate itself. It gives the rear end a unique character, though the tailgate opening is smaller than it otherwise could be.
The sedan is nearly seven inches longer than the hatchback and has a more conventional rear end. The sedan is handsome enough, with its long, tapering sail panels.
We find the hatch more appealing. We like its distinctive styling and find it more versatile than the sedan.
The huge front seats in the Nissan Versa are roomy and comfortable. As with the other cars in this class, the Versa driver gets lots of legroom and headroom. In terms of hip room, however, the Versa is a real standout. The width and the substantial structure of the front seats may make the Versa a great choice among subcompacts for big drivers. The cloth-covered seats are comfortable without being too soft and offer plenty of side support.
The back seat is particularly impressive. As you get in you'll be pleasantly surprised by the size of the rear door and how the front edge of the rear wheel well does not intrude as you step in. There are many larger four-door sedans and even many large SUVs that have smaller rear door openings. Even a six-footer shouldn't feel cramped as the rear seat legroom is at or near the top of the class. The Versa sedan gives up about half an inch of rear-seat headroom to the hatch, but that's not all that much.
Nissan has made sure that most of the surfaces you touch, such as the armrests and door handles, have a soft feel to them. No hard plastics here.
The instrument pod contains three large, well-recessed gauges that are easy to read. The speedometer takes pride of place in the center and almost seems as if it is floating over the other two gauges.
Controls for the dash mounted radio and CD changer are well integrated into the center stack, and although they are not very large they are easy to see and comprehend. There is a large volume knob in the center with a very visible power button. Three functional, conventional knobs operate the climate control system. All in all there's nothing fancy about any of the controls, although everything looks well finished. Two large cupholders are conveniently located under the center stack.
The optional Intelligent Key allows for keyless starting of the engine, something that up until now has only been available in luxury cars. We don't recommend it. Tow truck operators tell us they get a lot of calls dealing with keyless starting systems. And we don't find them a big benefit.
Cargo versatility is a strong point for the hatchback. There's a generous 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place. Fold them down and you've got 50.4 cubic feet, which is almost as much space as you'll find in a small SUV. Part of the reason for the spacious rear cargo bay is the careful design of the rear suspension so that no strut towers intrude into the interior. The versatility of the three-door hatchback is one of the unsung tales in the world of automobiles.
The sedan offers a 13.8 cubic-foot trunk, which is good for the class.
The Nissan Versa gets an EPA-rated 27/33 mpg City/Highway. One of the reasons for its excellent highway economy is its continuously variable transmission, or CVT. Nissan has been a standout in this technology; it's so well integrated into the Murano that drivers often don't notice it was anything other than a regular automatic.
A CVT doesn't shift gears like an automatic transmission. Instead, a segmented belt rides up and down on cone-shaped pulleys to vary the speed ratio between the engine and the drivetrain. It works more efficiently than a traditional automatic, which is why the Versa equipped with a CVT delivers such good highway mileage. Around town it has the same economy as a manual transmission, better than an automatic, in other words.
A four-speed automatic transmission is available for the Versa, though we expect it may be phased out. A six-speed manual remains for drivers who prefer shifting gears.
We've been pleased with the Versa. It has plenty of zip and there's no problem merging into traffic on a fast free-flowing freeway. When you stomp on the gas pedal the sound of the engine revving instantly before the car accelerates, a phenomenon of the CVT, can be a bit disconcerting at first. We found it not unpleasant, in fact it sounds kind of fun. In regular stop-and-go traffic under slow acceleration there is no sensation other than the car moving forward smoothly with no sound or feel of shifting gears. It's certainly a far cry from the clumsy gear shifting once common on small four-cylinder cars with three- and four-speed automatics.
On winding roads in Tennessee, near where Nissan is building its new U.S. headquarters, we found the car's handling to be perfectly adequate. It's not sporty like a Mini Cooper, nor is it sloppy like budget cars of a few years ago. Sporty drivers might wish for more feedback from the steering and more power, but there's no reason for others to complain.
The Versa is one of the first cars in this price category to feature electric power steering. In the past we have been disappointed in the poor feel of electric steering, but Nissan seems to have designed this system so it feels just as good as any hydraulically powered steering. No complaints here.
Thanks to the long wheelbase with wheels pushed out toward the four corners, the ride is better than one usually expects from a small car.
The brakes are fine. We recommend ordering the anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist for their ability to help you avoid an accident.
The Nissan Versa delivers decent performance and has a surprising amount of interior space. It feels bigger than it actually is, which is a good thing. There's lots of room for back-seat riders. The hatch offers big cargo space. The Versa gets excellent fuel economy, particularly on the highway. The CVT works well, though it will feel a bit different at first.
New Car Test Drive contributor John Rettie filed this report from Nashville, Tennessee. John F. Katz added some commentary.